RamAgeo 10-02-021

The Age of the Unthinkable

Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It


Joshua Cooper Ramo

Little, Brown and Company, 2009, 279 pp.  ISBN 978-0-316-11808-8


Ramo is managing director at Kissinger Associates and a former foreign editor of Time magazine.  He lives in Beijing and New York.  This book shows how an out-of-date picture of the world exacerbates our problems and suggests a new framework for thriving in an unpredictable world.  The book consists mostly of fascinating and insightful illustrative stories.


Part I  The Sandpile Effect

1. The Nature of the Age

Destabilization of the existing order is inevitable.  We are entering a revolutionary age with a mindset suited for centuries past.  Revolutions produce a whole new cast of historical champions.  Our world requires radical rethinking.  “In a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation, you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary.” (11)


“What we need now, both for our world and in each of our lives, is a way of living that resembles nothing so much as a global immune system: always ready, capable of dealing with the unexpected, as dynamic as the world itself.” (18)


2. The Old Physics

Today’s ideal political candidates need the essential skill of crisis management.  (36)


“Many of the most dynamic forces in society come from outside elite circles, from geeks who in the past might have been thought of as ‘losers,’….” (37)


“For hundreds of years now we have lived in our minds as builders: constructing everything from nations to bridges….  This mode of existence, which delivered amazing progress, is no longer suitable.  The world is too complex, its resources too limited, and its internal dynamics too unstable to accommodate much more of this mania.  It is now delivering the opposite of what we intend even as it presents us with new and insoluble problems.” (40)


3. The Sandpile

“The story of the sciences in the twentieth century is one of a steady loss of certainty. …once you made the leap to a new model—if it was the right model—then accepting uncertainty and indeterminacy allowed you to make sense of parts of the world you had never understood before.” (46) 


The world is like a little pile of sand.  If you piled the sand, gain by grain in a cone, how would you know when that tiny pyramid would have a little avalanche?  (48)  Sandpiles (and our world systems) are constantly poised on the edge of unpredictable change.  (49) 


Just because something is too terrible to contemplate doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.  As solid as the market foundations appear, they are made of sand.  “One of the lessons of international finance is that from time to time large economic storms come along and wipe out huge pieces of the global economy.” (37)  As the global economy becomes more interlinked and everything moves faster, the crashes become far worse.  Our world is organized into instability, basic unpredictability. 


4. Avalanche Country

No one foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union – which demonstrates that the wrong way of seeing can hide the real dynamics of the world.  It was a case of internal implosion due to faults, twists, and kinks in the society.  Anytime we push for change, much of what we get may be unpredictable.  (72)  The world continues to shift and adjust because of unpredictable clashing of internal forces.  “As it becomes clearer that the idea of capitalist democracy is failing to deliver on its promises…new ideas will explode into view.” We can expect thousands of new ‘isms.’  


The increasingly interlinked financial markets are not immune to catastrophic changes that may be triggered by a minor happenstance or even an unsubstantial rumor.  Our financial markets are rigged so that rapid fundamental change is possible; they are organized into instability.  Addressing these risks requires radical new thinking and commitment. 


5. Budweiser

We have relied heavily on our technology for defense.  “At the same time there is a growing list of the failures of large powers like the United States to defeat insurgents or terrorists and, more worryingly, to defeat their ideas.”  “…no major power has been able to defeat an insurgency anywhere in the world.”  “It’s mostly, after all, the revolutionaries and rebels who make history.”  “We can’t regard military dominance as a given or as a reliable source of physical safety anymore.” (88-9)  We have bought a lot of destructive power but not much ability to defend.


Our technology sets our enemies – including terrorists, hackers, bio-engineers, and nuclear experts – scrambling for new ways to fight.  Attacking is cheap.  The cost of prevention is enormous.  New technologies benefit revolutionaries the most.  They are the ones with the psychology of risk, curiosity, confidence, and joy to find the little cracks of vulnerability.  “Transnational drug smugglers cultivate, distribute, and invest the returns of a multibillion-dollar business, for instance.  And mixed with ideology, technology only speeds the spread of revolutionary ideas.” (96)  Our security will become ever more perilous.


Wars are becoming unwinnable.  And starting a war will create new, harder to treat headaches.  Threats to our national security demand a complete reinvention of the ideas of security.


Part II  Deep Security

6. Mashup

Deep security “is about mastering the forces at work deep inside our sandpile world. …a way of seeing, of thinking, and of acting that accepts growing complexity and ceaseless newness as given—and, used properly, our best allies.” (108)  Deep security is “a kind of immune system, a reactive instinct for identifying dangers, adapting to deal with them, and then moving to control and contain the risk they present.” (109)


“Revolutionaries see big changes early because they are looking for signs that things are different….”  They are looking deeply.  (110)  We are making policy based on the wrong image of the world.  What are we missing?  (117) 


In developing the Wii, Miyamoto “had ‘mashed up’ two seemingly unrelated things…to create something new.  And in our revolutionary age, the mashup is a sign of a different landscape of power…  mashup logic demands that we look at the world as multiple objects mixed in multiple—unpredictable—ways to create totally new objects or situations.”  (126)  “…mashups have the weird effect of making the unimaginable not only possible but inevitable.  Mash up authoritarian rule and capitalism, previously thought to be incompatible, and you get China.”  We must learn to understand and use mashup energy.  “Our policies, dreams, and ideas can be combined to release new and unexpected power.”  (128-29) 


7. The General and the Billionaire

A former head of Israeli military intelligence said that “people have the habit of asking the wrong questions, of looking in the wrong places and in the wrong way.”  For example, how many tanks to do they have and where are they?  He started directing his spies to look at details that seemed irrelevant, things that move and change.  The parts of a system can’t be understood in isolation; you must look at everything at once.  What really matters is often hidden where the experts don’t look.  Discrete, piece-by-piece thinking no longer works: success comes from holistic thinking, a blend of deduction, insight and inference. 


“Narrow-gazing not only leads to … misfires, it also fatally constrains the ability to imagine good ideas or policies.  The chance for real brilliance or flair is usually best seen out of the corner of the eye.” (154)  We must teach ourselves to see the whole environment.  Americans tend to focus on the big object in the foreground and miss the subtle changes in the environment. 


“…in a world of constant change, you need to try to connect with the environment around you any way you can: by sweeping your eyes, by opening your mind to uncomfortable ideas, even by trying to sympathize with historically noxious figures.  Only then could you improve your chances of not missing the signs that something, something important, was about to change.”(164)  “The more we paper over complexities with simple old ideas and the less we try to take in the whole picture, the greater the risk we’re running. … Everything is connected.  And that makes simple analysis very, very dangerous.”   (167)  “If you can master the skill of looking deeply, it can deliver everything you may have dreamed of.” (168)


8. The Management Secrets of Hizb’allah

“The logic that guided international affairs for centuries was that threats of violence could buy safety.”  “But what is new is that such threats spread more quickly and widely than ever, mashing up into new dangers when we try to regulate or control them.” “Often they’re not only irreducible but novel: never seen before.” (171) 


“Learning to think in deep-security terms means largely abandoning our idea that we can deter the threats we face and, instead, pressing to make our societies more resilient so we can absorb whatever strikes us.  Resilience will be the defining concept of twenty-first-century security….” (172) 


Real resilience can rescue triumph from disaster.  The best resilient systems evolve in response to the unexpected. (173)  They adapt and they learn.  But resilience has to be built into the system in advance.  “A high national savings rate, instead of policies that encourage high levels of personal debt, might be more important than the regulation of specific financial instruments.”  (179) 


Underlying, slow changing forces often have the most profound impact on the system.  (180) 


Hizb’allah imbeds itself in daily life in Lebanon.  It builds replacement houses for those that are destroyed by the Israeli’s.  Thus direct attacks on Hizb’allah makes militants more resilient, not less.  Hizb’allah’s greatest survival secret was in creating a system that allowed them to shift and learn and change—and do it even better when under attack.  (189-90)


Much of what we face can’t be deterred, prevented or even predicted.  Thus we need to become resilient.  [The suggestions for doing so do not seem very robust.  Perhaps there are better ones. Dlm]


“Studies of food webs or trade networks, electrical systems and stock markets, find that as they become more densely linked they also become less resilient; networks after all, propagate and even amplify disturbances.”  “The more closely we are bound together, the weaker we may become.”  (198-99) 


9. The Limits of Persuasion

The head-to-head approach often fails because we can’t find or name the threats we face and when we figure out what the enemy is doing, he shifts to something else.  We must augment our instinct for direct action with an indirect approach.  Touch as many parts of the system as you can, hunting for signs of unexpected and dangerous echoes bouncing back at you.  (210)  Use the environment, shaping and designing it for our use.  (213)  Prepare the relationships and tools in advance. (214) 


Systems-style leverage might avoid direct conflict by using forces already at play to quietly manipulate the environment.  (223)  We currently have a shortage of leverage.  We need to construct new relationships as sources of indirect leverage. 


10. Riding the Earthquake

“It’s not wrong to think of what’s going on in our world as a race between forces that are unthinkably amazing and those that are unthinkably horrifying.”  “When you spread power instead of hoarding it, you discover benefits that you couldn’t have imagined in advance….” (236)  “Swarming is, of course, the classic immune-system response. … This kind of self-organization, the ability to pull off an ‘all hands on deck’ reaction, exists in many of the most efficient and resilient systems in our world. … Once users step into active engagement, the dynamics of the system shift forever: users stop being consumers and become participants.” (237) “Our goal now should be to empower as much of the world as we can, even if at times that means encouraging forces that make us uneasy at first glance….  This means placing, right at the heart of our international policy, a goal of giving everyone basic survival rights.” (243)  “A peer-produced world offers hope that local innovation and a flowering diversity of ideas can begin to cope with everything from water shortages to terrorism.” (244)


11. The Revolution and You

“Even small changes can have an impact on our future—and this is why we all must get involved.”  “Change in our world isn’t going to feel like something far away from us.” (260) 


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